Miliband(s) and the left. Can Labour learn its history?

The party must avoid repeating the mistakes of the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1980s.

Can the left, or more specifically Labour, learn from its history? In an important article in the Times (£), David Miliband sets out his stall as a leading thinker on the crisis of the contemporary left in Europe. More precisely, he discusses the failure of the European parties of the governing left to seize the moment.

He claims that the parties of the European left have never been so excluded from government. That is a little unfair on Spain, Portugal, Greece and now Ireland. And David's father lived through the 1950s, when Britain, Germany, Italy, the Benelux countries and Ireland were all solidly under centre-right rule, as was France, where the main-left opposition was provided by the Communist Party, which did protest not power.

Might it be more true that voters do not vote left at times of economic crisis and downturn? Instead, these periods see a rise of populist, nationalist identity politics, often allied to economic and social protectionism and isolationism. The left came into power in Germany in 1970 and France in 1981 at the end of longish periods of growth. Labour did badly in the 1980s and lost a fourth consecutive election in 1992 at a time of high unemployment, house repossessions and mass business closures.

By 1997, the economy was stabilised, growth was steady, and unemployment was going down. Rather than the worse, the better for the left, it may be more accurate to say that countries vote left when voters feel more confident about their future.

If greens and anti-social-democratic parties of the left are counted in with mainstream Party of European Socialist parties, then the accumulated left vote does not look so bleak even today. There is a fair chance that Dominique Strauss-Kahn could win the French presidency next year, such is the disillusion with Nicolas Sarkozy, who now trails behind the extremist and racist Marine Le Pen, who has succeeded her father as leader of France's National Front. There are six major regional elections in Germany this year following the Hamburg mini Land vote, which the Social Democrats comfortably won over Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats. Judgements can be made later in the year, but the chances of the SPD returning to run Germany in coalition cannot be dismissed.

The biggest problem for classic social democracy or Labourism is the disappearance of a nationally rooted, industrial working class, both skilled and blue-collar manual. There is a proletariat, but it is often immigrant, sometimes without papers, disconnected from a common sense of national identity or the traditional religious and communal history of the left. If Labour owed more to Methodism than Marx, what now is Labour's connection to Muslim Britain?

Trade unions in Europe no longer confront or control capitalism, as the private-sector economy is largely union-free. Instead unions are concentrated in the public sector, where the source of pay, pensions and perks comes from workers paying taxes. Has the left got a politics for the public sector beyond denouncing cuts? French unions have been mobilising public-sector workers continuously in a series of strikes and protests for 20 years. The unions may fill the streets, but voting urns are filled for the right as French voters keep choosing a right-wing president and even in 2002 preferred Jean-Marie Le Pen to the Socialist Lionel Jospin.

The European country where the left has held cabinet seats continuously since 1958 is Switzerland. But Switzerland is also home to Europe biggest populist identity party, the SVP (Swiss People's Party), which campaigns against the EU, against mosques, against Muslims and for harsh criminal justice. So does the left win and hold government power simultaneously with losing its hold over its traditional 20th-century base – the national, monocultural working class?

David Miliband has sketched out a series of brilliant insights, and his talk tonight at the LSE is an important event as Labour starts the long process of thinking about where it went wrong and what it needs to do to regain power. In South Yorkshire on 19 March, Britain's top Labour historians will gather with the public to discuss part of the question Miliband addresses. At a conference in Rotherham called "31-51-81: Why Labour Stayed in Opposition", Professor Andrew Gamble and other historians and writers on Labour will try to explain Labour's three lost decades – the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1980s. (Details and application form here.)

Gerald Kaufman, who was in the Oxford Labour Club with Rupert Murdoch and stood for parliament in 1955 and 1959, will join with David Owen, founder 30 years ago of the Social Democratic Party as witnesses to those bleak lost decades for Labour. What did Labour do or say that made voters maintain the right in power? Are there lessons today from how Labour stayed rooted in opposition for such long spells in the 20th century?

En route between London and his South Shields constituency, David Miliband is welcome to drop off in Rotherham on Saturday week. So are any NS readers who would like to take part. Come to think of it, Doncaster is only 20 minutes from Rotherham. Maybe David's brother should disguise himself, sit at the back, and see if the story of Labour in the 1930s, 1950s or 1980s can provide clues as to how he can set about becoming prime minister sooner rather than later.

Denis MacShane is the MP for Rotherham and a former Europe minister.

For more information go to 31-51-81.co.uk or send cheque for £10 to: South Yorkshire Political Conference, 4 Hall Grove, Rotherham S60 2BS.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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Shadow Scottish secretary Lesley Laird: “Another week would have won us more seats”

The Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath on the shadow cabinet – and campaigning with Gordon Brown in his old constituency.

On the night of 8 June 2017, Lesley Laird, a councillor from Fife and the Labour candidate for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, received a series of texts from another activist about the count. Then he told her: “You’d better get here quick.”

It was wise advice. Not only did Laird oust the Scottish National Party incumbent, but six days later she was in the shadow cabinet, as shadow Scottish secretary. 

“It is not just about what I’d like to do,” Laird says of her newfound clout when I meet her in Portcullis House, Westminster. “We have got a team of great people down here and it is really important we make use of all the talent.

“Clearly my role will be facing David Mundell across the dispatch box but it is also to be an alternative voice for Scotland.”

At the start of the general election campaign, the chatter was whether Ian Murray, Labour’s sole surviving MP from 2015, would keep his seat. In the end, though, Labour shocked its own activists by winning seven seats in Scotland (Murray kept his seat but did not return to the shadow cabinet, which he quit in June 2016.)

A self-described optimist, Laird is calm, and speaks with a slight smile.

She was born in Greenock, a town on the west coast, in November 1958. Her father was a full-time trade union official, and her childhood was infused with political activity.

“I used to go to May Day parades,” she remembers. “I graduated to leafleting and door knocking, and helping out in the local Labour party office.”

At around the age of seven, she went on a trip to London, and was photographed outside No 10 Downing Street “in the days when you could get your picture outside the front door”.

Then life took over. Laird married and moved away. Her husband was made redundant. She found work in the personnel departments of start-ups that were springing up in Scotland during the 1980s, collectively termed “Silicon Glen”. The work was unstable, with frequent redundancies and new jobs opening, as one business went bust and another one began. 

Laird herself was made redundant three times. With her union background, she realised workers were getting a bad deal, and on one occasion led a campaign for a cash settlement. “We basically played hardball,” she says.

Today, she believes a jobs market which includes zero-hours contracts is “fundamentally flawed”. She bemoans the disappearance of the manufacturing sector: “My son is 21 and I can see how limited it is for young people.”

After semiconductors, Laird’s next industry was financial services, where she rose to become the senior manager for talent for RBS. It was then that Labour came knocking again. “I got fed up moaning about politics and I decided to do something about it,” she says.

She applied for Labour’s national talent programme, and in 2012 stood and won a seat on Fife Council. By 2014, she was deputy leader. In 2016, she made a bid to be an MSP – in a leaked email at the time she urged Labour to prioritise “rebuilding our credibility”. 

This time round, because of the local elections, Laird had already been campaigning since January – and her selection as a candidate meant an extended slog. Help was at hand, however, in the shape of Gordon Brown, who stood down as the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in 2015.

“If you ever go out with Gordon, the doors open and people take him into their living room,” says Laird. Despite the former prime minister’s dour stereotype, he is a figure of affection in his old constituency. “People are just in awe. They take his picture in the house.”

She believes the mood changed during the campaign: “I do genuinely believe if the election had run another week we would have had more seats."

So what worked for Labour this time? Laird believes former Labour supporters who voted SNP in 2015 have come back “because they felt the policies articulated in the manifesto resonated with Labour’s core values”. What about the Corbyn youth surge? “It comes back to the positivity of the message.”

And what about her own values? Laird’s father died just before Christmas, aged 91, but she believes he would have been proud to see her as a Labour MP. “He and I are probably very similar politically,” she says.

“My dad was also a great pragmatist, although he was definitely on the left. He was a pragmatist first and foremost.” The same could be said of his daughter, the former RBS manager now sitting in Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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